A version of this article was published in English Dance and Song Volume 63 part 1
Published here by permission of the current editor, Derek Schofield

The Brown Girl

Roud 180, Child 295A

The folk song collector's dream - to be able to travel back in time to previous centuries and hear the folk songs being sung and even being made.  Not as daft as it sounds!  Okay, actually listening to a young sailor from Nelson's fleet in the foc's'le bursting forth with an old ballad is not yet on the agenda, but how about discovering ballads hidden away in obscure collections that were obviously a vital part of the folk process two or more centuries ago, or turning up a hitherto undiscovered Child ballad c1820 along with its tune?

These are just some of the delights to be enjoyed in searching through the street literature collections which are rapidly becoming more accessible to scholars due to modern technology and the foresight of a few archivists who are putting their archives onto the internet and microfilm.  Yes, it means wading through the endless sheets of Dibdin songs and parlour pieces, but the end results are well worth the effort, and this I intend to demonstrate in this series of articles presenting scarce and interesting broadside ballads to a wider audience.

Let's start with a Child ballad with only one version thought by many to exist.  The Brown Girl (Child 295A) was printed by John White of Newcastle c1780.  Child gives two versions, both sent to him by Baring Gould, the A version as above, the B version Baring Gould claimed to have collected from a local singer.  In reality this B version is a splicing of the A version and a well-known broadside ballad Sally and her True love, Billy, a splendid hoax which has lasted for well over a century.  For a full history of the hoax and its effect on later collections see Folk Song Tradition, Revival and Re-Creation, edited by Ian Russell and David Atkinson, University of Aberdeen 2004, chapter 28.

The version of the ballad given here The Cruel Nymph has two more stanzas than The Brown Girl (8 & 10) and it was found buried in the enormous Madden Collection of ballads in Cambridge University Library (Madden Collection, VWML microfilms 71/418, slip songs A-G).

Parts of this ballad did survive into the twentieth century in Scotland.  Stanzas 2, 3, 4 and 6 have lines in common with a ballad, itself a collection of commonplaces, called The Rue and the Thyme.  The closest version to The Brown Girl is version A of The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection Mercat Press 1995 Volume 6, p.156, No.1139.

The Cruel Nymph, A New Song
I am as brown as brown can be,
And my eyes black as a sloe;
I am as brisk as a nightingale,
And as wild as any doe.

My love sent me a letter,
Far from yonders town;
He could not fancy me,
Because I was so brown.

I sent his letter back again,
His love I value not;
Whether he could fancy me,
Or whether he could not.

My love sent me another letter,
That he lay dangerous sick,
And I must needs go presently,
To give my love physick.

But now you shall hear what a love I had,
And a love for that sick man;
That I was a whole summer's day,
One mile a going on.

When I came to my love's bed side,
Where he lay dangerous sick,
I could not then for laughing stand
Upright upon my feet.

I set me down on his bed-side,
And laid a white wand on his breast,
And then cry'd I, since you're so well,
I hope your soul's at rest.

No sooner I had spoke these words,
He lifted up his eyes;
But since you see how bad I am,
'Tis you your love denys.

I'll do as much for my true love,
As any pretty maiden may,
I'll sing and dance upon your grave,
For a twelvemonth and a day.

When I have done what I can do,
I'll sit me down and cry,
And every tear that I do shed,
I'll hang them up to dry.

As Child points out in his notes, most of these stanzas have equivalents in other Child ballads, which is probably why he decided to include it in his collection, having already rejected some spurious material sent by Baring Gould.

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